The bitter fighting in Syria seems to grow worse by the day, yet the rebels and the government do occasionally manage to work out something that requires each side to trust the other: prisoner swaps.
In one recent exchange, two women held by the government were freed in exchange for seven men who were fighting on behalf President Bashar Assad’s regime.
After being freed near the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia, the two women traveled across the border to Antakya, Turkey, and agreed to be interviewed. The women and their negotiator squeezed together on a living room sofa to tell the story.
Alaa Moralli, 22, and Majida Mahmoud, 40, had documented anti-government protests in Latakia and were arrested and jailed by the Syrian government in June.
The negotiator, Haitham Tarboosh, a former real estate agent, is now a rebel commander wearing freshly pressed green fatigues.
When Moralli first heard that she might be released, she refused to believe it.
“I thought this was another game the regime was playing. I said, ‘No, you are lying, I’m not going anywhere with you,'” she says.
Caught In A Propaganda War
There were reasons for her doubts. After her arrest, she says she was forced to make a confession that was broadcast on Syrian state TV, and it was considered a propaganda coup for the government.
In this broadcast, she said that before her arrest she had sent fake news reports about the uprising in her home city to Arabic satellite channels.
Syrian officials routinely charge that Western and Arabic media broadcast fabricates stories about Syria as part of a Western-backed conspiracy.
Her televised statement was posted on Facebook by thousands of Syrians.
“I wasn’t tortured,” she says now. “They would just make me hear the sound of people being tortured. Before they recorded that video of me there was a 15-year-old boy being tortured. And I thought if I would just say [what the government wanted] they would release me.”
Her release finally came when a rebel brigade called the Hawks of the Syrian Coast negotiated the exchange.
Haitham Tarboosh says his brigade holds some 80 prisoners, a combination of security police and civilian militamen known as “shabiha,” who were captured in battles around Latakia.
Prisoners Call Home
Tarboosh allowed the prisoners to call home. It was a gesture that shows some social customs still survive even in this brutal civil war.
“The prisoners would call their families from my phone,” he says. “Every second day we would allow them to talk to their families.”
And soon the families started calling Tarboosh.
“So, all the 80 families would talk to us -– and they wanted their sons,” he says.
The families, all supporters of the Assad regime, then pressed government officials to make a deal, says Tarboosh. But such negotiations require trust –- trust that both sides will deliver and not set a trap.
“There is no trust between us. We don’t trust this regime,” Tarboosh says. “Deliver and you get a delivery is the rule.”
The “delivery” was a remarkable success, with every step documented by the rebels.
In a video, two cars arrived on the highway outside of Latakia, where the prisoners from both sides walked to freedom. And when it was over, the rebels made another video of their own propaganda coup.
In this video, Alaa Moralli, just released from 65 days in prison, looks a little startled to be cradling an AK-47 rifle. Tarboosh, the negotiator, reads out a statement claiming a victory over the Assad regime.
But the larger message — the successful swap of prisoners — shows that even during a brutal war, families matter, as do old connections from before the war. And communication is sometimes still possible.